Ethernet co-inventor finally bags a Turing Award, half a century later

Robert Metcalfe with a purple background of ethernet plugs.
(Image credit: Mark Wilson / Staff)

Robert Metcalfe, one of the principal engineers behind ethernet, has finally been handed a Turing Award by the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), some five decades after his invention came to be. Fifty years seems like a long time, though the man appears to have been so busy accepting awards he wouldn't have had time to show up for a Turing Award.

In the bibliographic section of his Turing award announcement, it goes through the many recognitions Metcalfe has seen for his work. These include "the National Medal of Technology, IEEE Medal of Honor, Marconi Prize, Japan Computer & Communications Prize, ACM Grace Murray Hopper Award, and IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal. He is a Fellow of the US National Academy of Engineering, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the National Inventors, Consumer Electronics, and Internet Halls of Fame", to name a few.

Bob's a little bit decorated, then.

After landing himself two Bachelor of Science degrees from MIT—one in electrical engineering, the other in industrial management—Metcalfe achieved an applied mathematics Masters at Harvard.

He originally pitched his PhD thesis to Harvard around improving networking, but it was dismissed as being not theoretical enough. So fell by the wayside his plan to connect the university's computers up to the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPAnet), the first operational packet switching network, and where Internet Protocol (IP addresses) originated. And while Harvard turned its nose up, MIT welcomed the innovation, recruiting him into Project Mac to carry out his connective dreams.

(Image credit: Pixabay)

It was as he designed and built an Arpanet interface for a new PARC computer that he and co-inventor David Boggs brought the ethernet to life. Its success was down to the two ironing out the current telephone network's data log jam issues, which had meant the networks weren't being used to their full potential. Inspired by, and revised from the University of Hawaii's attempts to connect its many islands through the ALOHAnet, ethernet made packet data transfer a breeze.

It was enough for Metcalfe to convince Harvard to award him an MSc, and with his fervent application and continued advocacy over the years, ethernet went on to become standardised across the globe.

What's interesting is how ethernet was originally dubbed the "Ether Network." When you say it back makes all this sound very ghost-in-the-machine, but according to the International Journal of Communication the name has some pretty metaphysical ancient ties.

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Not only had Aristotle invoked the word ether to describe the fundamental matter of all things, Newton spoke of it as the substance that "freely pervades the pores of all bodies". Or as Joe Milutis calls it in his 2006 book Ether: The Nothing That Connects Everything, "the irrational element of Newton's rational universe".

And you can bet the spiritualists gobbled the word up, but the main reference Metcalfe and Boggs seem to point to is an experiment by 19th century physicists Michelson and Morley, in which they attempted (and failed) to detect the effects of a proposed "aether" on the Earth, a substance they had assumed energy must travel through.

It doesn't, just so we're on the same page.

"Metcalfe and Boggs affectionately dubbed the two altos on which they worked 'Michelson' and 'Morley,' thereby further acknowledging the ether influence".

From Aristotle to Metcalfe and Boggs, the ether has come a long way to connecting our world together. So Metcalfe's award is a deserving one indeed, in recognition of an invention that has truly given substance to a once pretty absurd word.

Katie Wickens
Hardware Writer

Screw sports, Katie would rather watch Intel, AMD and Nvidia go at it. Having been obsessed with computers and graphics for three long decades, she took Game Art and Design up to Masters level at uni, and has been demystifying tech and science—rather sarcastically—for three years since. She can be found admiring AI advancements, scrambling for scintillating Raspberry Pi projects, preaching cybersecurity awareness, sighing over semiconductors, and gawping at the latest GPU upgrades. She's been heading the PCG Steam Deck content hike, while waiting patiently for her chance to upload her consciousness into the cloud.